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New York Times Reporter Rohde Details His Kidnapping by Taliban

October 26, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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New York Times reporter David Rohde recounts being kidnapped by the Taliban for more than seven months while working on a book in Afghanistan. Gwen Ifill reports.

JIM LEHRER: Next, we go to Gwen Ifill for a reporter’s story of captivity and escape in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

GWEN IFILL: Nearly a year ago, New York Times reporter David Rohde set out from Kabul for what he thought was an interview with a local Taliban commander. Instead, he was kidnapped.

For the next seven months and 10 days, Rohde, his driver and an Afghan journalist he was working with were held prisoner. They were moved to a series of houses, first in Afghanistan, then in the lawless tribal regions on the Pakistan side of the border, where Osama bin Laden is thought to be hiding.

Their lives were repeatedly threatened. They got away only by staging their own escapes. Rohde told his story last week in a five-part series in The New York Times. He joins us now to share that story.

Welcome, David Rohde.

DAVID ROHDE: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: Explain for us, for those people who didn’t get to read your series, how exactly you came to be taken.

DAVID ROHDE: We were invited to an interview by a Taliban commander, as you said, a local commander just outside of Kabul. He had given several prior interviews to other foreign journalists, and not kidnapped them. We felt we could trust him.

But, from the beginning, we were abducted. And then, after only one week in Afghanistan, we were brought into Pakistan’s tribal areas.

GWEN IFILL: We all have many images in our minds about what it means to be held hostage, especially in wartime, especially in an unmarked region. How were you treated?

DAVID ROHDE: I was treated very well physically by the Taliban. I was never beaten. I was given good food and even given bottled water. They brought me English-language Pakistani newspapers, and they let me walk in a small yard each day.

The problem was that their demands in exchange for our release were extraordinarily high. They asked for $25 million in a ransom at different times, and then as well as prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. And, as time went by, we — we felt they were never going to release us.

Taliban hostile to moderate locals

GWEN IFILL: It also sounds, however, there were -- there were always threats against you, threats of beheading, threats against the people who were being held with you?

DAVID ROHDE: Yes. And the real hostility was directed towards the Afghan journalist and Afghan driver who were with me.

And it was an important lesson, that the hostility that the Taliban feel is most focused on the local Afghans and Pakistanis who work with the United States. They -- they stated that there's no way the United States could operate in the region without the support of moderate Pakistanis and moderate Afghans. And that's definitely true.

So, they were absolutely furious at the two Afghans who were with me and threatened them much more than they did me. And -- and, overall, since 2001, roughly 5,000 Pakistanis have died fighting the Taliban. An even higher number of Afghans have died. And that's -- that's roughly five times of Americans who have perished there.

So, they face the hostility, and they're paying the price most so far in the fight against the Taliban.

GWEN IFILL: You wrote that the -- you were surprised at the level of extremism that you saw demonstrated by at least the part of the Taliban that held you since 2001.

You were surprised at the extreme -- the extreme nature of it. How so?

DAVID ROHDE: Well, there's many local Taliban. And it's important for people to understand that the people who held me are the extreme, most hard-line Taliban.

There are local Taliban fighters inside southern and eastern Afghanistan who are only fighting for local grievances, who really only want to drive Western forces out of Afghanistan.

The people I was held with in Pakistan's tribal areas are much more hard-line. These are young Afghans and Pakistani who have spent a lot of time with foreign fighters, Arabs and many Uzbeks who are aligned with al-Qaida.

The real hard-line Taliban emerging from this sort of fulcrum in the tribal areas, their goal goes beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan. They -- they want to work with al-Qaida to establish a hard-line Islamic regime that would span the entire Muslim world.

GWEN IFILL: You have been a reporter for some time. You have reported abroad for some time. You have even been held hostage before. How different was the lived experience of your -- your captivity from the reporting and the reported experience of covering Afghanistan and Pakistan?

DAVID ROHDE: I was surprised at the strength of the Taliban mini-state that exists in the tribal areas.

You know, very senior Taliban commanders, as well as Arab and Uzbek militants, freely walk the treats streets of the towns where I was held. My guards were trained how to make roadside bombs to kill Afghan and Western soldiers. It really is a Taliban mini-state.

What I saw in Pakistan showed me that the emirate, the Taliban regime that the United States thought it had toppled in 2001, it still exists today. It simply moved a few miles east into Pakistan's tribal areas.

Suspicions about Pakistan

GWEN IFILL: You write a lot about your suspicions at the time of the role of the Pakistani military and the military intelligence. Share that with us.

DAVID ROHDE: One of the most remarkable experiences was that we were driven by a senior Taliban commander for three hours one day to shoot an outdoor video.

It was one of several videos they sent out basically to my family, my newspaper trying to extort more money. We ran into a Pakistani army convoy on that drive. And, basically, our vehicle, a Taliban vehicle, only the driver had to get out.

Under a truce agreement between the Taliban and the Pakistani military, none of the other passengers have to get out when an army convoy passes. And, in fact, this commander simply waved at the Pakistani troops as they drove past.

This, to me, showed that, under this truce agreement, militants, foreign militants could hide in the back of cars and not be discovered, or kidnap victims like myself could be held there. And there does seem to be, you know, that members of Pakistan's military intelligence service, not -- not all members of the Pakistani army, but at least the military intelligence service, the ISI, continues to at least turn a blind eye toward the Taliban.

And some American officials say they -- they even supply them with weapons and money.

GWEN IFILL: Well, obviously -- at least the obvious question after seven months and 10 days of captivity, how did you escape?

Staging an escape

DAVID ROHDE: We -- our captors lied to us repeatedly about, you know, that there was a deal in the offing. And the last story they gave us was preposterous. They said that the United States was willing to exchange all the remaining Afghan prisoners in Guantanamo for us.

We basically escaped at night. I had found a car towrope beside some wrenches and motor oil when we had moved into this house. I hid it under some old clothes. And, while our guards were asleep, we were able to use the rope to basically -- we climbed up on the roof of the house, used the rope to lower ourselves down an exterior wall that was about 15 feet high.

And, then, from there, we walked to a nearby Pakistani militia base. And, again, the point being there are Pakistanis and moderate Pakistanis that are -- are against the Taliban. The guards on that base let us inside and protected us. You know, they saved our lives.

So, there are, you know, moderate Pakistanis and -- and members of the Pakistani armed forces who are opposed to the Taliban.

GWEN IFILL: And all three of you survived this experience.

DAVID ROHDE: We did. And we are extraordinarily lucky.

And I would just say that more people are, you know -- still, more captives and more kidnap victims are still being held in the tribal areas. We're not disclosing their names or cases because we don't want to encourage the kidnappers from demanding even higher ransoms. But this problem continues. It is a Taliban mini-state. We were so lucky to escape. And, unfortunately, others, you know, will not be so lucky.

GWEN IFILL: David Rohde of The New York Times, thanks for sharing your story with us.

DAVID ROHDE: Thank you.